When I taught 5th grade, my students served meals to homeless people. They always reported that it “felt good” to help other people. As their teacher, I was pleased about their enthusiasm for this monthly mitzvah, but wondered: Did these experiences produce anything beyond the students’ good feelings? We certainly weren’t solving the bigger issues that created the need for meal programs. And my students – generally perceiving themselves as part of a safe web of family and community – had a hard time imagining themselves on the receiving side of a feeding program. Part of “feeling good” was the belief that they would always be in a position to help.
With my students then, or in the Polack Food Bank now, it is vital that we discuss the reasons people in this wealthy country require the kindness of strangers in order to meet their basic needs. Conversations often turn towards a lack of “justice” as the upstream cause of inequality, but Judaism teaches that there is an additional way of thinking about these problems that moves beyond justice.
Rabbi Noam Zion writes extensively about the Jewish values behind the laws of tzedakah. He argues convincingly that the Torah repeatedly focuses on caring for orphans, widows and strangers because these are the people who have frayed family and/or community ties.
He posits that a central goal of the laws of tzedakah is to connect vulnerable people to others who will care for them. And they, in turn, will have the opportunity to care for others. For Rabbi Zion, “the primary need is not financial… rather finances are instrumental for fulfilling the real need. That deep human need is not for individual autonomy but for being webbed in a family that will…embody an ethos of mutual responsibility.”
Rabbi Zion argues that the upstream way to prevent poverty is to create social safety nets for every person. He argues that “the tzedakah system is not a society-wide principle for just redistribution of all the wealth by need, but a remedial response to the lacuna in society created by various misfortunes that make the basic family support system inadequate.” Isolation that results from a lack of this sturdy safety net poses an extreme danger to our well-being.
American society stresses the value of independence and the responsibility of the individual. Jewish texts, on the other hand, understand that the basic human need for dignity is found first in companionship and intimate ties to community. With many people today living far from family, and with a greater understanding that there are times when even strong nuclear families are vulnerable without a greater web of support, these teachings become more important. The focus on independence must be paired with an equal emphasis on interdependence.
At JFS, when we talk about dignity as the key to a Jewish understanding of how to care for others, we talk about how vulnerable it must feel to depend on others for something as rudimentary as food. This informs every aspect of our work.
Food Bank staff and volunteers are aware of the value of eye contact and of asking people what food they would like rather than handing them pre-made bags. This produces moments of the dignity of human connection and reminds us of the lesson of the Torah: that we are all part of one family, all descendants of one couple, of Adam and Eve.
When we ask ourselves how to think and work “upstream,” we must find ways to create a society in which we help people move simultaneously towards independence and interdependence. Crafting a balance of personal accountability and also of intimate community responsibility is our obligation if we are to create an upstream safety net for everyone.
Join us on June 5 for Families Fight Hunger with hands-on Food Bank service opportunities and learning with Beth Huppin.
By Beth Huppin
Beth is the Director of JFS Project Kavod/Dignity. She has enjoyed teaching Judaics to children and adults of all ages in both formal and informal settings for over 30 years. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.